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What is Chinese baijiu? An introduction

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If you’re raising a glass this week to celebrate the Chinese New Year, why not choose baijiu? Baijiu has been made and drunk in China for more than 1000 years and is the country’s most popular spirit. It is now being discovered by drinkers around the world.

What is Chinese baijiu?

On first impression, most people not accustomed to drinking baijiu think it looks like water, smells terribly strong, and burns the nose!

The definition of baijiu

Baijiu is a distilled spirit, with alcohol content ranging from 38-68% ABV, made from starchy raw materials such as grains. It’s reliant on an external source of enzymes – qu – to convert these starches into sugars. Qu is a solid mass of coarsely crushed grains that contains all of the fungi and microorganisms necessary for this conversion as well as the yeast necessary to convert these now fermentable sugars into alcohol.

Styles and types of baijiu

There are four major subcategories of baijiu, or "four basic aromas (四大基础香型)":

  • Strong Aroma (浓香)
  • Sauce Aroma (酱香)
  • Light Aroma (清香)
  • Rice Aroma (米香)

Baijiu blending - Luzhou Laojiao
Baijiu ageing - Luzhou Laojiao

Strong Aroma Baijiu

Currently, Strong Aroma(浓香) Baijiu dominates the market. For every ten bottles of baijiu consumed, seven of them are Strong Aroma.

Strong Aroma Baijiu, unsurprisingly, features strong flavours. High-quality Strong Aroma Baijiu features very prominent pineapple aromas, with melon, red date puree, cumin, earthy and grain raw material flavours.

Depending on the raw materials used, Strong Aroma Baijiu has two main styles. One is a single-grain style, where the grain sorghum is used as the raw material. Made in many parts of China, it originated in Luzhou Laojiao (泸州老窖). The other is a multi-grain style represented by Wuliangye (五粮液). This is made using sorghum, rice, glutinous rice, wheat and corn. Generally, the multi-grain style flavours are more pronounced, while the single-grain style tends to have a softer and more elegant profile.

Sauce Aroma Baijiu

Sauce Aroma Baijiu is characterized by deep savoury flavours rarely found in other types of spirits. The “sauce” flavour is reminiscent of traditional Chinese sweet sauce, pickled cucumber and soy sauce. Tobacco, clove, red bean paste, and crispy rice aromas can also be found.

This type of baijiu is generally full-bodied with balancing acidity, although some producers - such as Langjiu (郎酒) - make a lighter, softer style. Sauce Aroma (酱香) Baijiu has become more popular in recent years, and its market share is growing every year. One of the most famous baijius - Moutai (茅台) - is a classic Sauce Aroma from Guizhou province.

The town of Erlang - LangjiuThe town of Erlang - Langjiu

Light Aroma Baijiu

Light Aroma Baijiu has three sub-categories determined by the different use of qu: Big Qu Light Aroma, Small Qu Light Aroma and Fu Qu Light Aroma. Big Qu Light Aroma is considered the highest quality of these three. The main characteristic of Light Aroma Baijiu is “Qing(清)” meaning clean and pure. A good Light Aroma Baijiu should be full of fruity and floral flavours with a slightly solvent aromatic lift. On the palate, Light Aroma Baijiu usually has a light and delicate profile.

Baijiu blending - Luzhou LaojiaoBaijiu blending - Luzhou Laojiao

Rice Aroma Baijiu

Rice Aroma Baijiu is most associated with Guangxi and Guangdong provinces in the South East of China. It tends to have more delicate aromas and textures than other categories of baijiu.

Tips on buying Baijiu

Although Sauce Aroma Baijiu has become very popular in recent years, because the style is so strong, it’s not to everyone’s taste. I would suggest you start with a Light Aroma Baijiu. If you have the budget to do so, I also suggest you start with a baijiu from a well-known brand. If you’re struggling to choose where to start, don’t be afraid to ask. Whether you’re in a bar, restaurant or drinks retailer, there should be someone to offer you some good advice.

I hope you find your own baijiu and enjoy your choice. Happy New Year!

Prepared for WSET by Vincent Xu DipWSET. Vincent is a WSET Diploma graduate and WSET educator in wines and spirits, he is also an SSI (sake) educator, Whisky Ambassador accredited educator and a National Chinese Baijiu sommelier and educator.

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